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International City Theatre announces 2022 season in-person theater

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Courtesy of International City Theatre, Long Beach, California

LONG BEACH –International City Theatre is back in full force with a complete season of five in-person plays scheduled for 2022.

“We need the arts, now more than ever as we move beyond Covid-19, to provide hope and healing for our community,” says International City Theatre’s artistic director. “Each of the five plays we’ve chosen to celebrate our return to live theater continues our vision: to entertain, inspire and educate.”

The season kicks off in February with Marry Me A Little. Conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René, this charming, bittersweet musical two-hander weaves 17 lesser-known songs by Stephen Sondheim into a tale of love and loneliness that The New York Times calls “a disarming experience.” The story of two single strangers who unknowingly live one floor apart is told entirely through songs written early in Sondheim’s career or cut from his groundbreaking Broadway musicals. (Feb. 11 through Feb 27; previews begin Feb. 9.)

Next up, in April, is A Dolls House: Part 2 by Obie award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath. It was shocking for audiences to watch Nora leave her husband and children in A Doll’s House, the 1879 play by Henrik Ibsen. How shocking will it be for us, in 2022, to dive deeper into the reasons behind that fateful choice in Hnath’s bitingly funny, Tony-nominated stand-alone sequel to Ibsen’s revolutionary masterpiece? (April 15 through May 1; previews begin April 13.)

Production number three puts Jamie Torcellini at the helm of The Legend of Georgia McBride, aheartfelt, feel-good, music-filled comedy by Matthew Lopez. Casey is young and broke. He has a baby on the way, and the landlord is knocking on his door. Now, the owner of the bar where he works as an Elvis impersonator has replaced his act with a B-level drag show, and Casey’s about to learn a lot about show biz — and himself. (June 10 through June 26; previews begin June 8.)

The season will go out on a high note (pun intended) in October with Ken Ludwig’s two-time Tony-nominated screwball comedy Lend Me A Tenor. When world-famous tenor Tito Morelli arrives for a fundraiser at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, a chain-reaction of mistaken identity and mixed signals spirals out of control, leading to mayhem, high-jinx and hilarity —and leaving audiences giddy and teary-eyed with laughter. (Oct. 21 through Nov. 6; previews begin Oct. 19.)

A fifth play, set to run Aug. 26 through Sept. 11, will be announced at a later date.

Two of the plays in the season, The Legend of Georgia McBride and Lend Me A Tenor, were previously announced to open in 2020 but put on hold due to the pandemic.

“We are so grateful to be able to put these two plays back on the schedule,” desai says. “We are back to doing what we are meant to do — tell stories that help us better understand our world and our shared humanity.”

Recognized by Long Beach as the City’s resident professional theater company, International City Theatre is the recipient of over 400 awards, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s prestigious Margaret Harford Award for “Sustained Excellence” and the LADCC’s 2016 Polly Warfield Award for an “Excellent Season.” In addition to its professional theater productions, ICT offers six community and educational outreach programs each year. The company’s commitment to the community also includes ongoing collaborations with Long Beach’s African American community and other groups and organizations. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe called ICT “a cultural treasure.”

All performances take place Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information about ICT’s 2022 season and to purchase subscriptions or single tickets, call (562) 436-4610 or visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org

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Ahmanson returns to live performance with ‘Christmas Carol’

Bradley Whitford in ‘Christmas Carol’ at the Ahmanson is a fresh perspective and new approach to a time-worn classic

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Bradley Whitford in ‘Christmas Carol.’ Photo courtesy of the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center

When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, he was inspired as much by a need to make money as he was a love for the holidays. His latest novel was being published in serial form, but sales were disappointing, so he hit upon the idea of a novella capitalizing on the seasonal fervor of readers to ensure himself a nice boost in income. It was a hit, and most of Western culture is still embracing the traditions immortalized within it, 178 years later.

Given the intent of its original author to use the story as a cash cow – something he would continue to do with live readings of the manuscript at nearly 200 public performances over the remaining course of his life – it seems fitting, or at least unsurprising, that “A Christmas Carol” has continued to be reinterpreted, restructured, remounted, re-invented, and recycled across every conceivable medium over the years. This year, Angelenos are getting the opportunity to see one of the most lauded of its recent incarnations, which has arrived at the Ahmanson to celebrate not only the Christmas season, but also the return to live performances after more than a year-and-a-half of shutdowns.

Playwright Jack Thorne – who rose to international acclaim for writing “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” – adapted the Dickens novella in 2017, for London’s Old Vic Theatre. It proved so successful that it has returned for an encore each subsequent year (including virtually, during the pandemic), and was mounted on Broadway in 2019 for a production that, despite its run being cut short by COVID-forced closure, snagged Tony Awards for the design of its lights, sets, costumes, and sound, as well as for its original score. It’s this version that’s now playing on the Ahmanson stage, a briskly paced, high-energy enactment of the Christmas classic that pares Dickens’ story down to its most essential elements while leaning heavily into the “magic of the theatre” to evoke the necessary sense of wonder. Thanks to those Tony-winning technical designs, it succeeds unequivocally in achieving the latter – but how well it succeeds in delivering “A Christmas Carol” to audiences eager for the comforting familiarity of a well-loved traditional experience is not quite so clear-cut.

In Thorne’s vision of the classic tale, we are transported to early Victorian London via a somewhat minimalistic scenic design, made up mostly of old-fashioned lamps – piled below as well as strung above, in a dazzling and immersive sea of light that extends out well above the audience – and a few modular components (all branded “Scrooge and Marley”) that can be variously assembled to suggest different locations, with a central playing area delineated in a square by four rectangular archways, which rise and lower as needed to suggest structures.. Abstract, cold, and industrial as this setting might sound, it is given ample warmth not just by the amber glow of the lighting, but by the music (most of which is played and sung live onstage) which accompanies the action throughout. Calling to mind, perhaps, an encampment in some urban junk yard where itinerant souls have gathered to share some holiday cheer despite their hardships, it provides a surprisingly effective environment for a tale which, like all of Dickens’ work, runs deep with a humanitarian undercurrent of social consciousness.

Within this evocative space, the players endeavor to tell the story of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge and his supernaturally facilitated redemption, banding together to recite the familiar words of Dickens’ narration in a style that falls somewhere between Greek Chorus and Carnival Busker. Individuals step out from this group to assume particular roles – Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit and the Ghosts, for instance – but Scrooge himself (Bradley Whitford, in a characteristically audacious performance) is set up from the beginning as a man apart, and for most of what transpires during the play’s short running time, he essentially serves as a foil for the rest of the ensemble – and the old-fashioned but dazzling theatrical trickery they employ as an aid – as they barrel through the iconic narrative and lead him against his will to his own salvation. It’s a boisterous ride, an inherently performative rendition that takes for granted we already know the story by heart and elides its way past most of the expository details so it can get to the key points faster and spend more time lingering there.

In description, perhaps, the show’s effect may seem like a bullet-pointed list, but in reality it plays out like a ceremonial presentation – and aptly so, given that its source material has become woven into the fabric of one of the cornerstone events of the Christian calendar. In the orchestrated blend of language and movement that take us through the paces of Scrooge’s road to transformation, the beloved high points – the introductions of the ghosts, the visits with nephew Fred, and of course the heart-tugging saga of Tiny Tim – become scenes for contemplation, like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross; and within that heightened sense of import, Thorne’s script takes the opportunity to expand upon some of Dickens’ time-honored storytelling with a few flourishes dictated by a decidedly modern perspective.

In this “Christmas Carol,” the Cratchit family drama that usually occupies so much of our attention takes a back seat to unpacking the history of trauma that turned Young Ebenezer into Old Scrooge in the first place. Taking leaps with ideas merely suggested in the story’s original text, Thorne gives us harrowing insight into the old man’s upbringing, reveals the ahead-of-its-time “wokeness” of Fezziwig’s worldview, and allows for some healing and closure in the thwarted love story with abandoned fiancée Belle. He also introduces moments of particularly harsh reality – like letting us see the death of Tiny Tim instead of merely learning about it after the fact – that take us by surprise and thereby forces us to confront them more directly than in Dickens’ kinder, gentler original; finally, he diverges from tradition in his depiction of the ghosts (particularly the last one) and gives them all a more personal relationship to Scrooge than is suggested in the original.

All of this makes for stimulating theater, and Thorne, along with the entire creative team, deserve kudos for bringing a fresh perspective and new approach to a time-worn classic. But the problem with new approaches is that, by changing focus, they also change effect, and theatre-goers hoping for the kind of familiar, comforting holiday experience they normally expect from “A Christmas Carol” may well find this one jarringly UN-familiar. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but when your heart is set for figgy pudding, anything else is bound to be a disappointment.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say that this new production is absolutely worth seeing, for its creativity, its energy, and its willingness to shed some fresh light on some corners that have always remained dark in the past. It just might not be the Dickens you were looking for, and if you can manage that expectation, you’re likely to have a festive time, indeed.

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Broadway gathers to honor Sondheim in Times Square

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim

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Broadway gathers to honor Stephen Sondheim (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Light snow flurries swirled around the stars of theatre and stage of New York City’s ‘Great White Way’ as they gathered Sunday in Times Square- members of every Broadway company assembled singing in a powerful chorus “Sunday,” the powerfully emotional act one finale to “Sunday in the Park with George.”

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. That piece being performed had garnered Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Broadway’s best were joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban, Kathryn Gallagher and Lauren Patton at ‘Sunday’ Performance in Times Square.

The man who was heralded as Broadway and theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century died at 91 Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

“This felt like church,” Bareilles told Variety after the performance on Sunday. “In his remembrance, we did what theater does best. We sang and raised our voices and came together in community.” 

Variety also noted that during the celebration, Miranda offered a sermon of sorts. Foregoing a speech, he opened Sondheim’s “Look I Made A Hat,” an annotated anthology of the composer’s lyrics, and read from a few passages before the crowd.

“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George memorial for Stephen Sondheim

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Words never fail in MacIvor double bill by Open Fist Theatre

The playwright offers a contemplation of life and death, experience & memory, honesty & deceit, that make up human existence

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Schuyler Mastain, David Shofner, and Scott Roberts in THE SOLDIER DREAMS (Photo Credit: Frank Ishman)

LOS ANGELES – There has long been debate among theatrical scholars about whether going to a play has been traditionally considered an auditory or a visual experience.

The argument goes that, before the advent of modern technology which enabled cinema and other forms of filmed entertainment, the theatre was a place where sound was the primary vehicle by which an audience’s imagination could be transported out of the here and now, and that visual elements such as costumes, props, or mechanical stagecraft were secondary factors meant to reinforce and enhance the effect; for evidence of this, many point to Shakespeare, who in “Hamlet” had his lead character say “we’ll hear a play” (a phrase which was subsequently long-used preferentially by many theatre-goers in his homeland) and whose works are still renowned five-and-a-half centuries later for their masterful use of language to accomplish… well, pretty much everything required, from setting the scene and telling the story to exploring the deepest nooks and crannies of the human psyche.

Though the whole question might seem a bit pedantic in today’s world, it certainly touches on a major difference between the way we experience live theatre and the way we experience a film or television show, one which hinges on the main route these related-but-separate art forms take – through the ears or through the eyes – in transmitting information to the human brain. And if you want a good example of what a difference that difference makes, you couldn’t find a much better illustration than the plays of Candadian wordsmith Daniel MacIvor – two of which are currently being performed by the Open Fist Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre.

MacIvor, who is known also as a filmmaker and actor, garnered acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s for a series of plays, crafted in a minimalist style and reliant on an intricately constructed tapestry of words to convey situation, narrative, and intent. Standard conceits of theatrical storytelling, such as a linear flow or the assumption of a fourth wall, are often jettisoned in these works, which invite comparisons to absurdists like Beckett and Pinter and challenge audiences to connect the dots as they go in order to decipher meaning. 

Two of these pieces, both directed with a confident hand by Open Fist’s associate artistic director Amanda Weir, are paired by Open Fist into a brisk and engrossing double bill which leans hard into the award-winning playwright’s unique, meta-theatrical approach to maximum advantage.

The shorter of the two works, “Never Swim Alone,” is the more directly abstract. Taking place on stage that is bare save for a lifeguard stand and two chairs, it presents a ruthless competition of one-upmanship between two men, Frank and Bill (Bryan Bertone and Dylan Maddalena), who demonstrate an escalating series of scenarios under the watchful eye of “The Referee” (Emma Bruno) – a young woman with a secret connection to the boys these men used to be. Slyly witty and unexpectedly suspenseful, it examines the competitive machismo hidden beneath the slick and stylish suits of these two “Type A” businessmen with a dark and scathing sense of humor, as it slowly draws a connection between their never-ending battle for supremacy and the deep trauma of a shared childhood experience.

Originally produced in 1991, the roughly 30-minute exercise taps into the rich vein of toxic masculinity in order to make its points about the deep-seated fears and insecurities that drive so much of what our culture has long accepted as “typical” male behavior, with the two men vying for “points” against each other – awarded, of course, by the female referee, who holds absolute and irrefutable power in the game despite the clear lack of regard with which each of the participants reveals themselves to hold women in general.

It’s unapologetically clever and disarmingly comedic, reveling in its theatricality and its tactics as it explores the men’s rivalry and breaks each confrontation down into the all-too-familiar clichés in which they are mired. The elegant simplicity of its construction, which distills a far-reaching and deep-rooted phenomenon into clear and concise shapshots of social dysfunction, feels as effective today as it surely did over two decades ago.

From a 2021 perspective, however, the subject matter no longer seems as fresh. In the last few years (especially since the “Me Too” movement), the topic of bad male behavior has been rehearsed so frequently, and in so many different and brilliant ways, that many audiences may find themselves getting ahead of the play’s revelations before they fully land, and the conceit which ties the whole thing together – which we’ll not reveal here – may ultimately strike some viewers as too pat an explanation for what makes these men (and presumably, somehow by extension, all of them) tick.

Nevertheless, MacIvor’s wordplay never fails to be crisp and exciting as it trips from the talented tongues of the players (especially the charismatic Bertone and the sublimely expressive Maddalena, who take on the lion’s share of the work), and those who enjoy watching skillful actors engaged in an exercise of their craft are bound to find the pleasures of doing so more than enough to make up for the familiarity of the themes being explored.

More satisfying from a narrative standpoint, and more engaging on an emotional level, is “The Soldier Dreams,” which MacIvor – who is gay – wrote in 1998 as a response to the AIDS crisis. Again, the setting is sparse, suggesting an empty nightclub with a single bed, occupied by an ailing man, facing upstage in the center.

The man is David (David Shofner), who is in the process of dying as his lover Richard (Conor Lane) and dysfunctional family spar with each other over his comatose form, each clinging to their own perceived special relationship with him and examining their memories to find an answer to the lingering mysteries about his life. Meanwhile, David himself is revisiting a secret memory, from years before, involving a one-night stand with a German student (Schuyler Mastain) that may or may not have led to something more important to him than any of the people standing around his soon-to-be deathbed.

Here, the same linguistic tricks used by MacIvor to form the intellectual exercise of “Swim” are employed to illuminate the web of human relationships at the center of a bittersweet story; as a result, they strike us with deeper resonance and more urgency than in the other piece.

Through the myriad pathways of language, the playwright offers a contemplation of life and death, experience and memory, honesty and deceit, and a host of other dualities that make up human existence. There’s sharp humor and cutting observation along the way, along with a fair amount of painful and hard-to-watch bitterness, but it’s all tempered with compassion and the three-dimensional layers revealed by each character as we go, and in the end, we are left in a place of hope – or, at least, of acceptance. And making it all come together, a talented cast succeeds in the essential task of breathing life into MacIvor’s words, with Shofner, Lane, and Mastain as standouts among a solid and capable ensemble.

The two complementary plays continue their run at Atwater Village Theatre through December 12. Check the Open Fist website for performance dates and times.

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